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Seamus Heaney

Regular readers of this blog may be aware that I read one or two books of Irish fiction every March. I haven't settled on what to read this year yet - Beckett, Trevor, McGahern and Patrick McCabe have already crossed my mind - but now, after reading this glowing review of Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, I'm thinking I might branch out from strictly reading Irish fiction and try some of Heaney's poetry. But since my knowledge of poetry is very limited, I need some help on what to read. If anyone can recommend which one of Heaney's collections I should read, please do so in the comments below.

Incidentally, we do own a copy of Heaney's celebrated translation of Beowulf, which I'm definitely going to read sometime this year. But that hardly qualifies as Irish writing, so I need something else of his to read this March.

February 27, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Red and Norm

Red Norm

I don't follow sports nearly as much as I used to, but I can't help being touched and saddened by the passing (one not so sudden, the other quite sudden) of two local legends, Johnny "Red" Kerr and Norm Van Lier. My mom grew up in the same South Side neighborhood as the Kerrs, and knew Johnny's older sister quite well. He's always been a favorite of mine - despite being a shameless partisan as a Bulls broadcaster, he brought boundless enthusiasm and passion to the job and was a bigger fan of the team than anyone else. His knowledge of the game was deep but he never talked down to the fans - it was easy to imagine him sitting at your elbow, at a bar or your living room couch, excitedly commenting on the action as it unfolded. With all that this man accomplished in the game, as a player, coach, broadcaster and tireless goodwill ambassador, it's simply unconscionable that he still hasn't reached the Hall of Fame. Regardless of whether he ever gets there or not, he'll always be in my own personal Hall of Fame as one of the all-time greats.

And none of the above should in any way slight Van Lier. Much of it applies to him as well, though he's not quite of Hall of Fame caliber. Nobody ever worked harder than Stormin' Norman.

Farewell, gentlemen. You will truly be missed.

February 27, 2009 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


"Finished this day — and I hope to God it's good."
- John Steinbeck (born this day in 1902), on completing the manuscript of The Grapes of Wrath

February 27, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Acquisition: The Moviegoer and Their Eyes Were Watching God

Hi. My name is Pete, and I'm a bookaholic. (Hi, Pete!)

Though I've made only a small dent in my TBR pile lately and hardly needed any new books, today I succumbed again. I took the day off from work to help Julie celebrate her birthday, and one of our stops was the local Goodwill store. I made my usual beeline to the book section, not looking for anything in particular of course, and I walked away with a hardcover of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer and a paperback of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, for the grand total of $2.67 plus tax. Having read neither author, I wasn't exactly in the market for either book, so I guess I was compelled by the stellar reputation each book enjoys - The Moviegoer seems particularly well-loved. And I actually have a tenuous relationship to Hurston's book - I worked at University of Illinois Press for a semester during undergrad, helping to key their catalog into a PC database for the first time. The book was out of print for almost thirty years before UIP reissued it in 1978, and that book is the only record I can now remember typing in.

I'm really looking forward to reading both books, though I really have no idea when that will be. You know, like most of the books on my pile.

Yes, I am a weak, weak man.

February 25, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?

Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? is a devastating portrait of ambition and success, set against the glimmering backdrop of 1930s Hollywood. Sammy Glick is a screenwriter and then producer who has no artistic talent whatsoever, and yet becomes a great success due to both his own relentless, remorseless drive and the town's warped values. Though he has no artistic talent, he wantonly steals from and exploits those who do, and turns their creative work into his own personal success through his greatest strength - that of self-promotion. He tirelessly sells himself, hogging the spotlight wherever he goes, taking full credit when he deserves none.

And yet, Hollywood rewards his bad behavior (which also includes a complete lack of conscience) and by the end of the novel, having stomped on everyone in his path on his way up the ladder, he has reached the pinnacle of success - he is production head of a major studio, is married to the gorgeous daughter of the multimillionaire financier who backs the studio, and owns a vast estate in Bel Air. He has everything, for the moment at least.

Sammy is an infuriating character, and as act after appalling act piled up, I found myself hungering for his ultimate comeuppance, the karmic retribution he so fully deserved. Which made me smile when I read the narrator thinking along the same lines, on the second-to-last page:

I thought how, unconsciously, I had been waiting for justice to suddenly rise up and smite him in all its vengeance, secretly hoping to be around when Sammy got what was coming to him; only I had expected something conclusive and fatal and now I realized that what was coming to him was not a sudden pay-off but a process...

As the novel ends, Sammy is on top, a blustery and superficial fake in a town that celebrates and rewards bluster, superficiality and fakery. But his retribution - and there will be retribution - won't be immediate. Instead, Hollywood will slowly tire of him as he ages and becomes overly familiar, and he will gradually be nudged aside for someone fresh and new, and he will find himself working his way, quite unwillingly, back down the career ladder - working with steadily smaller budgets, middling scripts and then B and C actors until one day he will likely be without any work at all. The same qualities which fueled his Hollywood success will ensure his downfall. But Schulberg neatly leaves Sammy's downfall offscreen, as it were, showing the protagonist on top but with the seeds of his eventual demise already sown.

What Makes Sammy Run? is a terrific, entertaining and thought-provoking read, one which I highly recommend.

February 22, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Gentleman From Cracow"

I recently read "The Gentleman From Cracow", by Isaac Bashevis Singer (from Gimpel the Fool and Other Stories). In this passage from near the beginning of the story, the desperate town of Frampol is in the grip of famine and destitution when a mysterious and munificent stranger arrives.

From the poorhouse gate the beggars came, crowding about him as he distributed alms - three groszy, six groszy, half-gulden pieces. The stranger was clearly a gift from Heaven, and Frampol was not destined to vanish. The beggars hurried to the baker for bread, and the baker sent to Zamosc for a sack of flour.

"One sack?" the young doctor said. "Why that won't last a single day. I will order a wagonload, and not only flour, but cornmeal also."

"But we have no money," the village elders explained.

"God willing, you will repay me when times are good," and saying this, the stranger produced a purse crammed with golden ducats. Frampol rejoiced as he counted out the coins.

The next day, wagons filled with flour, buckwheat, barley, millet, and beans, drove into Frampol. News of the village's good fortune reached the ears of the peasants, and they came to the Jews, to buy goods, as the Egyptians had once come to Joseph. Being without money, they paid in kind; as a result, there was meat in town. Now the ovens burned once more; the pots were full. Smoke rose from the chimneys, sending the odors of roast chicken and goose, onion and garlic, fresh bread and pastry, into the evening air. The villagers returned to their occupations; shoemakers mended shoes; tailors picked up their rusted shears and irons.

What do you know? It's an Old World version of an economic stimulus package. But the conservatives would love how this story ends - in catastrophe, with the town literally in flames and the stanger revealed to be a devil, and the people escaping earthly ruin and eternal damnation only by the wise and benevolent leadership of a pious rabbi, the only citizen to refrain from the sinful festivities.

February 22, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Who sez...


...Joliet ain't literary? This photo was taken on the east side of Joliet, at the corner of Little Dorrit St. and Dickens St. (Also nearby are Pickwick Rd. and Pickwick Ct.) And this isn't some chic new neighborhood that's striving for distinction by invoking the literary masters, but instead a rather humble cluster of 1920s frame houses that are adjacent to railroad tracks, a cemetery and a bridge overpass.


So dere.

February 22, 2009 in Books, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (1)

De Düva

This is priceless - De Düva, a 1968 parody of Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal and, I suspect, several more Bergman films I haven't seen. I'm not sure what's funnier - the fake Swedish ("water" becomes "aitch-too-oasken", "eventually" becomes "sooner-or-lateska"), the mythical Swedish lust, or the great scene when the young girl plays badminton with Death, which is a direct send-up of the playing-chess-with-Death scene from The Seventh Seal. But no matter - it's all quite funny, and I urge you to watch it.

I first saw this during college, in a class I took on Swedish cinema. We had already seen several Bergman films (including Wild Strawberries - which I absolutely loved - and The Seventh Seal) and the professor thought it would be fun for us to see a Bergman parody. Incidentally, my mom still can't believe she paid the tuition bill for me to take a class on Swedish film - she's convinced I was just watching pornography.

(Via Green Lantern Press.)

February 21, 2009 | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The dead are buried, as people say, and what the earth swallows is soon forgotten."
- Isaac Bashevis Singer (from "The Wife Killer")

February 20, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writer on Writer: Ben Tanzer

Ben Tanzer's This Tour Will Change Your Life rambles onward (I'm having this mental image of the Clampetts' old truck, from The Beverly Hillbillies, swaying side to side, weighted down will all of the family's worldly possessions, with Granny perched on top in a rocking chair) with the juggernaut stopping today at What To Wear During An Orange Alert?, which features none other than yours truly engaged in a typically long and unfocused conversation with Ben. Enjoy.

February 19, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reading update

Just finished reading Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, loved it (so much so that I want to write an old-fashioned letter of appreciation to the author, both for this and for On The Waterfront), and will post a review here over the weekend.

Next it's on to another Jewish writer, but a completely different kind than Schulberg: Isaac Bashevis Singer, and his story collection Gimpel the Fool. I read the title story this morning, and it's quite a lovely little tale.

February 18, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pure Prose Gold - the Ben Tanzer Repetition Patterns guest essay.

As I mentioned earlier, today is the first day of This Tour Will Change Your Life, Ben Tanzer's virtual book tour for his new short story collection, Repetition Patterns, published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. I am quite pleased to host the first stop on the tour, for which Ben has written, or "written", the essay below.

Pure Prose Gold - the Ben Tanzer Repetition Patterns guest essay.
By Ben Tanzer

February 8th – 11:15am
I receive a note from Pete Anderson that my Repetition Patterns guest essay is due on February 16th and that he is expecting “pure prose gold.” Not being entirely sure what that means I Google “pure prose gold” and find the Love is a Rose - Fine Gifts and Collectibles website. I learn that “Gold and Roses have always been symbols of love.” This is good to know, but really not so helpful.

February 8th – 11:15pm
I have been staring at the screen for twelve hours. Nothing. I got nothing. I am a loser, and not a Biggest Loser, which would be cool. I turn on the television and watch the latest episode of Confessions of a Teen Idol. I feel somewhat better about myself, but I am now terribly confused by the fact that “triple threat” Adrian Zmed is not an enormous star. The dude may have made some bad choices along the way, but if he couldn’t figure it out, what hope is there for me?

February 9th – 2:30am
I awake in a panic. Why has Pete put so much pressure on me? What is wrong with just conducting a by the numbers interview anyway? Seeking a distraction, I beg my wife to make love to me. She says fine as long she can pretend that I am Brad Pitt. I say that’s fine as long as I can pretend that she is Brad Pitt as well. Three minutes later I am asleep again.

February 9th – 6:30am
As I finish my fifth Bloody Mary I realize that I need to be sure to somehow hype my novels Lucky Man (Manx Media, 2007) and Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine (Orange Alert Press, 2008) in the Repetition Patterns essay assuming it ever gets written. To accomplish this though I will be need to be sneaky and not make it super obvious.

February 9th – 4:00pm
I know I can write this essay, I know I can write this essay. Instead I decide to twitter about my inability to write it and blog about my twitter update. I then decide to twitter about my blog post and update my Facebook status. I discover that dozens of people I went to high school with who never actually talked to me then would like to know “25 Things About Me.” I am incredibly touched by their interest and getting the list just right is now my sole focus.

February 10th – 12:00pm
I put the final edits on my “25 Things About Me” post. It feels good and I am so confident that this newfound sense of connection and kinship with my old classmates will only grow richer as a result that I begin to question why I ever thought I needed to go on this book tour in the first place.

February 11th – 10:30am
I have been reading Perez Hilton for two hours. The language is clean and slamming, and it is genius. Perez is the Updike of the gossip bloggers. I wish I could write like him, but I cannot, I have lost my way.

February 11th – 5:00pm
I can no longer remember why Pete has asked me to write an essay for his blog. I send him a note. I am super polite. He is not. He says he never wanted to be part of this project, but he thought it might get him laid. Now that he has discovered this most definitely is not the case he doesn’t care if I write an essay or not.

February 12th – 3:00am
I try to think about my motivation for writing the stories in Repetition Patterns and why this essay is important to me. I still got nothing. I try some writing exercises I learned about online on Media Bistro. They don’t work. I revisit the Love is a Rose website. I learn that their new handcrafted Heavenly Roses are “so perfect and lifelike, you would think they were lovingly made from the feathers of angel’s wings.” I wish I were handcrafted from the feathers of angel’s wings. But I am not. I am human. And I am flawed.

February 13th – Noon
I let Pete know that I will not be writing an essay. In fact, I have decided to stop writing entirely. He does not respond, but he does tag me in his “25 Things About Me” post.

(The next stop on the tour will be tomorrow, February 17, with Ben being interviewed renowned Chicago writer Elizabeth Crane. See you there.)

February 16, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Frank Jump, "Bay Ridge Subway"

Bay Ridge Subway (small) - Frank Jump

I greatly admire the photographic work of my friend Frank Jump, he of the anachronistic images of old "fading ads" painted onto brick walls. This new image of his is particularly striking in the way it blends the old (the fading ad for the shoe repair shop) and the new (the woman on the cellphone, warily eyeing the camera). Very nicely done.

February 15, 2009 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Found Art


I love all of the "found photographs" at bighappyfunhouse, most of which are funny, one-off snapshots. But I absolutely, positively LOVE this one (full-sized image), which to my (admittedly untrained) eye is nothing less than fine art - the framing of the neon sign, the angles of the sign supports and how the worker's body both complements those angles while being just slightly askew with them, and the tension of the worker's precarious position all make for a near-perfect composition. Reminds me quite a bit of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

February 15, 2009 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Peet's Service Station


Another matchbook (my eBay searches are turning up a lot of them lately), this one from Peet's Service Station. My best guess is that the station was located at what is now the intersection of Illinois Route 53 (the former Route 66) and Zarley Boulevard. While the "groceries" and "notions" are still part of modern-day gas station convenience stores, I love the mention of "heated cabins", which indicates the station featured a motor court motel for weary travelers. There's still a gas station on that corner (a Speedway) but from the satellite photo it looks the cabins are no more. I'm sure I'll be driving past this intersection soon to check it out.

February 14, 2009 in Ephemera, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (1)

Time stands still in Joliet

One of the things I love most about Joliet is its timeless quality. In many ways, time here has stood still - 1970s muscle cars sit parked on driveways, not as showpieces but as everyday vehicles; corner grocery stores and restaurants are marked by neon signs which are every bit as vibrant as they were brand-new, sixty years ago; hulking brick factories still operate though they no longer produce the horseshoes or barbed wire or wallpaper of old; old-school barber and cobbler shops still hang on. I've been called a throwback more than once, and I guess it's my fondness for the past which makes me appreciate my adopted hometown as much as I do.

Another case in point: Joliet has a local pharmacy, J.D. Brown and Company, which has been locally-owned and -operated for over 150 years, and is almost as old as the city itself. Although we frequent the store regularly (primarily Julie, who drops off shipments from her online businesses at the store's post office substation), until yesterday I wasn't aware of the following bit of historical interest about the store.

As it turns out, the store's founder James Douglas Brown was the nephew of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the renowned 19th Century politician who was best known for squaring off against Abe Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Douglas was a regular visitor to Joliet and to his nephew's store, where he liked to sit on a bench in the store and chew the fat with the locals. Remarkably, the bench not only still exists but even remains in regular use in the store. The Herald-News article linked to above (which I insist you read) also indicates that the bench has lived a rather charmed life, having survived both a fire and a tornado that destroyed the store in recent decades.

I passed this story along to Julie yesterday, and while at the store that afternoon Julie told Maddie about the bench. When I arrived home last night Maddie couldn't wait to tell me that she had sat on the bench I had read about. However, with Julie not being quite as passionate about arcane history as I am, she mistakenly told Maddie not that Stephen Douglas once sat there, but instead Ulysses S. Grant.

Which was an understandable mistake, since one of my ancestors personally knew Grant...but that's arcana for another day.

February 13, 2009 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The sound of ideologies clashing"

Wise words from one of my favorite bards, Billy Bragg:

Outside the patient millions
Who put them into power
Expect a little more back for their taxes
Like school books, beds in hospitals
And peace in our bloody time
But all they get is old men grinding axes
Far too many old men grinding far too many axes in Washington this week. For the good of the country, those patient millions, I hope those in power set aside all of the rhetoric and the posturing and get this stimulus bill passed. We need it.

February 13, 2009 in Current Affairs, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

February 12

Happy birthday to three great individuals - Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin and my late father, John Anderson. Sure, my dad didn't have the global impact the other two had on humanity, but he still had a huge impact on me and everyone else who knew him. He's the greatest man I've ever known. Here's to you, Dad.

Incidentally, my grandfather was so impressed by my dad's birth date that he wanted the boy to be named Abraham Lincoln Anderson. My grandmother's clearer head prevailed, and my grandfather had to settle for my dad being nicknamed Abe, which is what his siblings and relatives called him for the rest of his life.

February 12, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)


“Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive for him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink.”
— E.B. White, The Paris Review, 1969

I love this quote, even though (or because?) it rationalizes and excuses my own writerly procrastination. Then again, any writer who accomplished the twin triumphs of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little earned whatever sloth he might wish for himself. I have earned no such luxury.

(Via Maud Newton.)

February 11, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben Tanzer: This tour will change your life


Starting next Monday, February 16th, my good friend Ben Tanzer is embarking on a 12-stop virtual book tour to promote his rather nice story collection Recognition Patterns. The tour was organized and masterminded by the tireless Jason Pettus of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which also published the book. The full itinerary is listed below. As you can see, I'm pulling double duty on the Tanzer Hype Machine, hosting a guest essay of his on my own blog on the 16th, and guest-interviewing him at What To Wear During an Orange Alert? on the 19th. Should be a good time all around.

Monday, February 16th
Pete Anderson
Format: Guest essay

Tuesday, February 17th
Elizabeth Crane
Format: Interview

Wednesday, February 18th
Jason Jordan
Format: Guest essay on the inspirations behind each story

Thursday, February 19th
What To Wear During An Orange Alert?
Format: "Author-to-author" interview featuring guest editor Pete Anderson (PeteLit)

Friday, February 20th
Tim Hall
Format: Exclusive new MP3 of a story being read

Saturday, February 21st
Michael FitzGerald
Format: Interview

Monday, February 23rd
Amy Guth
Format: Interview

Tuesday, February 24th
Chicago Literary Examiner
Format: Interview

Wednesday, February 25th
Jason Riley
Format: Interview regarding the craft of writing

Thursday, February 26th
Nick Ostdick
Format: Audio interview plus guest essay

Friday, February 27th
S. Craig Renfroe
Format: Guest essay on artistic self-marketing

Saturday, February 28th
J.A. Tyler
Format: Interview regarding the book's unusual publishing and pricing

February 9, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sammy Glick leaves New York...quickly, of course.

Nice simile here in What Makes Sammy Run?, as Al Manheim catches his last glimpse of Sammy Glick before the latter leaves New York for fame and fortune in Hollywood:

I watched Sammy walk out of the office that day, and then I stood at the window and watched his new shoes and his new hat cross the sidewalk and disappear into a taxi, and then I leaned out the window and watched the taxi go ducking in and out through traffic like a broken-field runner.

Like Sammy Glick, I thought, as I watched the cab at the next crossing jump out ahead of the car that should have had the right of way. There was a shrieking of brakes, a raw angry voice, and Sammy's cab was away, around the corner on two wheels, though I stayed at the window a long while starting at it.

Besides careening through life at reckless speeds, just like his cab, Sammy is always slighting and exploiting people who "should have the right of way." He'll do anything to get ahead, and nobody had better get in his way.

Almost from the start of the book I wondered how Schulberg would manage to have his narrator continue to tell the story of Sammy's whirlwind life even after the youngster leaves for Hollywood. But that was easily solved: after Sammy has been gone for about a year, Manheim catches the Hollywood bug himself (like so many other East Coast and Midwest journalists and writers of the time), quits his newspaper job and heads west for a screenwriting job with a movie studio. There he can continue to follow Sammy's intriguing life, being fascinated and repulsed at the same time - Sammy's life in New York was already audacious enough, but in Hollywood he kicks that up to an infinitely higher level.

February 9, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Edward Chupack

I was quite pleasantly surprised to see this reading at The Parlor by Chicago writer Edward Chupack - surprised, because though I knew of Chupack from when we worked together at our last employer, I didn't know then that he was a fellow writer. (Admittedly, we worked in different departments - him in legal, me in credit - on different floors, and I don't think I ever met him in person, so while we worked on different areas of several deals the subject of writing never come up.) His debut novel, Silver (based on the legendary pirate Long John Silver) is out now, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for it.

February 8, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Best to instill good habits early in a child's life...


I'm endlessly amused about what was considered socially acceptable a century ago which would horrify us now.

(Via Weekend Stubble.)

February 8, 2009 in Ephemera | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sammy Glick Runs and Runs

Here's the terrific opening to Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?:

The first time I saw him he couldn't have much more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty.

"Good morning, Mr. Manheim," he said to me the first time we met, "I'm the new office boy, but I ain't going to be an office boy long."

"Don't say ain't," I said, "or you'll be an office boy forever."

"Thanks, Mr. Manheim," he said, "that's why I took this job, so I can be around writers and learn all about grammar and how to act right."

Nine times out of ten I wouldn't have even looked up, but there was something about the kid's voice that got me. It must have been charged with a couple thousand volts.

"So you're a pretty smart little feller," I said.

"Oh, I keep my ears and eyes open," he said.

"You don't do a bad job with your mouth either," I said.

"I wondered if newspapermen always wisecrack the way they do in the movies," he said.

"Get the hell out of here," I answered.

He raced out, too quickly, a little ferret. Smart kid, I thought. Smart little kid. He made me uneasy.

Schulberg packs so much into this short passage - the rapid-fire, wisecracking dialogue that marks so much of the novel; Sammy's always-frenetic pace and hints of a fascination with movies; Al Manheim's uneasy curiosity with the eager and ambitious office boy.

The word "ferret" is also worth noting here - both because it's used not once but twice, and that it's used instead of the more familiar "weasel." Both animals are quick, sneaky and furtive, just like Sammy, but "ferret" is more neutral while "weasel" has negative connotations (cheating, conniving, etc.). Though those latter qualities pertain to Sammy as well, the author chose to not be so blunt as to directly associate Sammy to them. Yet he still gets that point across, more subtly and effectively, by likening Sammy to a ferret instead.

February 7, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben & Jerry & George

Gerry Canavan links to this post about Ben & Jerry's supposed (but likely fake) solicitation of a new ice cream flavor to "honor" our recently departed President. Here are a few of my suggestions:

Let Them Eat Cake
Thickheaded Brickle
My Pet Gooseberry
Cherry Tarture
The War Criminal Raisins and Sprinkles (nod to Okkervil River)
War Criminilla

February 7, 2009 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

What I'm Writing (Or Thinking About Writing)

Wheatyard is still simmering on the back burner - the latest revisions are ebbing and flowing through my mind but remain mostly uncommitted to paper.

I'm also hoping to revive my story cycle on Chicago neighborhoods (whose previous working title Scent of Wild Onions I've grown tired of and am planning to change). When I set it aside last year, I had one full draft of a story ("Washington Heights") and a second that was about three-fourths complete ("Pilsen" then, though I'm thinking of changing it to "Canaryville" - it's an interior story, and the specific setting isn't critical), and back then held little hope for any further work.

But reading Charles Simmons Wrinkles (reviewed here) happened to get me thinking about the Chicago book again. Simmons' book is very fragmentary in structure, presenting scattered shards of the protagonist's life, and as I read I found myself thinking about the conceptual similarities to my Chicago book. True, Simmons' book is a novel about a single character and mine would be a collection of stories about various neighborhoods and characters, but I realized that my book would share some of that fragmentary aspect. So although my book won't be anything like Simmons', I'm hoping that it might at least serve as inspiration for working on mine again.

I have a few more neighborhoods in mind - Hermosa, Dunning, McKinley Park and the (ungentrified) South Loop - and have begun to (very vaguely) conceptualize characters and plots. As was the case with the first two stories, I will still try to have each story draw inspiration from and riff on a single line from each of the songs on Lou Reed's New York album. I'm sure the whole Reed thing probably sounds convoluted, but since the first story arose out of a single line from "Halloween Parade" that popped into my head one morning, I really want to continue with that concept unless it ultimately proves itself impractical and unworkable.

But all of this pondering and conceptualizing might be nothing more than a smokescreen. Because, to be totally honest, that "thinking about writing" clause above is an unfortunately accurate assessment of the current state of my writing. I've written very little over the past few years, as I've rarely found either the inspiration or motivation to do the necessary hard work. Sometimes I think that I'm absolutely, positively a writer, but other times it's almost as if being a writer is nothing more than how I want to think of myself. My professional career is doing nothing for me right now other than providing a regular paycheck, so maybe I think of myself as a writer to have something to identify with. Right now I'm spinning my wheels, and "thinking about writing" is, for the most part, as close as I've gotten to actual writing for quite some time. I'm thinking that I either need to get out of this funk, or else realize it's not a funk at all and that maybe I should quit pretending I'm a writer. Sorry to get all confessional on you, but it's something that's been nagging at me lately.

February 4, 2009 in Fiction, Marshland | Permalink | Comments (1)

Governor Quinn on the Illinois River

Our new governor in Illinois, Pat Quinn, wrote the following in a foreword to the photographic collection Life Along The Illinois River, by David Zalaznik:

Since the very beginning of our state’s history, the Illinois River has brought life to our communities, our economy, and our people....But as the nineteenth century came to a close, the river that had brought prosperity to so many began to suffer from human thoughtlessness...As the river waters grew shallower and dirtier, the river ecosystem dwindled. ‘Wash days’ in urban areas sent masses of gray phosphorous-filled suds floating downstream, while littered garbage and other wastes left the rivers and their banks odorous and unsightly.

Then the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was passed, providing much-needed regulation of industrial pollution sources and beginning a slow but spectacular river renaissance. As water quality improved, many species of fish returned, and wetlands that had been barren welcomed renewed growth of native plants...As the remarkable photographs in this book so clearly illustrate, the Illinois River valley has enjoyed a spectacular comeback. I hope you will enjoy this book—and more important, I hope it will inspire you to come and explore the rich cultural heritage and great natural beauty of Illinois River Country.
I concur with the blogger at University of Illinois Press (where I once worked part-time, untold moons ago) in the hope that Quinn in Springfield, along with Obama in Washington, are the political equivalent of the Clean Water Act. Goodness knows there's plenty of odorous and unsightly wastes to be purged from both cities.

February 3, 2009 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Free Candy!


The missus is giving away some Q.bel chocolate bars over at Chocolate Blog, one of her numerous Internet properties. Q.bel is very good stuff - I just had one for my lunch dessert - so I recommend that you rush over there and enter.

(No, the giveaway has nothing to do with Seinfeld or George Costanza. But when I thought of the subject line for this post I couldn't help remembering the infamous "stolen Twix Bar" episode of the show. That photo above is, sadly, not from that episode. I hoped to find a photo that at least showed George in a severely agitated state comparable to the one he was in when he discovered that all of his Twix bars had been eaten - but had no success doing so. Damned Internet.)

February 3, 2009 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

What I Listened To On My Way To Work Today

Interesting random playlist served up by my iPod for this morning's walk from the train to the office...

Pavement, "Shady Lane (Krossfader)"
Having never heard the album version of "Shady Lane", I've never been quite sure if this release (Shady Lane) is a single with bonus tracks or just a good old-fashioned EP. (The former would apply if this version and the album version are the same, the latter if not.) Regardless, this is a nice bouncy bit of mid-period Pavement.

Bottomless Pit, "The Cardinal Movements"
Tim Midgett and Andy Cohen of Silkworm "get it in their minds to live again" and regroup after the death of drummer Michael Dahlquist, with intriguing results. If I had a few more dollars of credit on my iTunes account this past weekend, I would have bought Hammer of the Gods, the debut album that this song leads off. And I'll still probably do so soon.

The Replacements, "Lovelines"
What a hoot - Paul Westerberg (supposedly) reading directly from the personals ads to the jazzy, rollicking musical accompaniment of the rest of the band. But the lines are almost too perfect to actually be from random ads, and instead sound a lot like Westerberg originals. If anyone can confirm or deny, please let me know.

Dumptruck, "Perspective"
The closer to the band's debut, D Is For Dumptruck, when they had not quite yet hit their stride. In fact, they weren't quite a band yet at all - just Kirk Swan, Seth Tiven and hired drummers. They weren't formally a band until their next release, Positively (one of my very favorites), after Steve Michener and Shawn Devlin joined in.

The Halo Benders, "Canned Oxygen"
One of oddest and best cross-collaborations I've come across - Built to Spill's Doug Martsch and Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson, plus a couple of others. Martsch gains from Johnson's lighthearted goofiness, while Johnson gains from Martsch's formidable musical chops. And in quite idiosyncratic fashion, they both sing at the same time, but never the same words. Hard to believe, but it actually works.

February 3, 2009 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

George Ade, "The Fable of the Author Who Was Sorry for What He Did to Willie"

My favorite George Ade story, "The Fable of the Author Who Was Sorry for What He Did to Willie", is now online at Project Gutenberg from its original volume More Fables. It's a hilarious but soberly cautionary tale for aspiring "serious writers" everywhere.

Seeing the Crumpled Paper in the Basket, the Friend, who was Inquisitive, hooked it out and read the Lines. Presently, when the Author looked up, the Friend had big Tears rolling down his Cheeks and was Sniffling.

"This is the Best Thing you have ever done," said the Friend. "My God, but it is Pathetic! It will certainly Appeal to any one who has lost a Child."

"I have no desire to Manufacture any more Sorrow for the Bereaved," said the Author. "They have had Trouble enough. If I have to deal in White Caskets or tap the Lachrymal Glands in order to thrash out an Income, I will cease being an Author and go back to Work."

"But this Poem will touch any Heart," insisted the Friend. "As soon as I got into it I began to Cry. You can get a Good Price for this."

When it came down to a Business Basis, the Author Switched.
I first heard the story several years ago via Ron Evry's marvelous podcast reading, but it's nice to finally see it in print.

February 2, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Acquisition: What Makes Sammy Run?

Though I plan to limit my acquisition updates to newly obtained books, I want to make one exception and backtrack on a prior acquisition. This one, also bought at Book Market, is Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? Once again, it's from the store's classic fiction aisle, a section which I'm increasingly drawn to. I've been an admirer of Schulberg for years, as he wrote the screenplay for On The Waterfront, my alltime favorite film. (Years ago I also picked up an old copy of Waterfront, his later novel which is reportedly much closer to his original screenplay than what was ultimately filmed. It's an interesting read - the narrative focus is much more on Father Barry than Terry Malloy than the film was, and even more significantly the book ends sadly, eschewing the happy ending that Elia Kazan presumably required for the film version. Looking back, the book's ending is much more realistic than the film's, and in that sense is somehow more satisfying than the unforgettable, uplifting finale of the film.)

Although I had already read and enjoyed Waterfront, I never realized how prominent an author Schulberg was in his prime until I perused the catalogs of Ivan R. Dee, which has reissued much of Schulberg's best work. I've been dawdling with buying some of Schulberg's books from the publisher, but wasn't quite sure where to start - with The Harder They Fall, the renowned boxing novel, Ringside, a collection of boxing reportage, or Some Faces In the Crowd, a short story collection. Then my hunting at Book Market turned up an old mass market paperback copy of What Makes Sammy Run? his celebrated 1941 novel about Hollywood. Since Ivan R. Dee hasn't reissued this book, I can now enjoy Schulberg and support my local used book store without feeling any guilt for not buying it from and supporting a great local publisher. Seems like the best of both worlds.

Remarkably, Schulberg is still with us - he's now 94 years old and has outlasted nearly all of his contemporaries. It's a rarity to be able to read a book that's 68 years old for the very first time, and for the writer to still be around. I'm going to start reading Sammy tomorrow morning, and am really looking forward to it.

February 2, 2009 in Books | Permalink | Comments (3)